If you told Mumilaaq Qaqqaq earlier this year that she’d end 2019 an elected member of Parliament, she likely wouldn’t have believed you.
“It’s important for individuals to see that people care and they know that the history and the systemic discrimination is very alive and real, and I can stand there and say that,” she said. “I’m not sure if previous elected members of Parliament have stood there and said that.”
She’s the territory’s youngest MP ever, and the first one to carry the NDP banner since 1980, when the riding was named Nunatsiaq and still part of the Northwest Territories. Nunavut is the largest electoral district in the world by area.
Qaqqak earned 41 per cent of the vote, besting Liberal challenger Megan Pizzo Lyall and Conservative candidate and former cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq by a healthy margin of over 1,000 votes, in what was predicted to be a tight three-way race.
Qaqqaq, who’s worked in community-organizing and non-profit groups, said she was recruited to run for the NDP a few months ago. After reading what the party stood for — and, most importantly, talking to her mom — she agreed to run.
“After having multiple meetings and discussing with different individuals, my name came up,” she told HuffPost Canada. “They thought I was a really good fit. And well, I have been elected, so I guess I was.”
She replaces former Liberal cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo, who resigned from cabinet in 2016 to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. Following treatment, he continued to sit in Parliament as an Independent, but did not seek re-election.
Not first time in Parliament
When Qaqqaq starts her first day in Ottawa, it won’t be the first time she’s spoken in the House of Commons.
In 2017, she participated in Daughters of the Vote, where she delivered an impassioned speech in the House about the suicide crisis in the territory, receiving a standing ovation.
“All we are asking for is our basic human rights,” she said. “Where is the support from leaders with power and the ability to make change?”
Now, Qaqqaq heads to a Liberal minority Parliament as part of a 24-person NDP caucus with a chance to hold the balance of power.
“The NDP really allows you to think frankly and freely. And I appreciate that so much,” she said. “So I’m really looking forward to creating a very strong relationship with me, and with my party.”
Qaqqaq told HuffPost that other NDP MPs, including neighbouring Churchill—Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have already reached out to offer their congratulations and support.
“Jagmeet is phenomenal,” she said. “I keep saying, ‘Can you imagine a coloured man that wears a turban as prime minister?’ And to me that is absolutely phenomenal.”
A voice for the north
Nunavut officially separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999. According to 2016 census data, the population is around 36,000, around 84 per cent of which are Inuit. Between 2011 and 2016, Nunavut had the highest population growth rate of any Canadian province or territory.
But Nunavut continues to have the highest youth suicide rate in Canada. Food prices are soaring and housing availability and affordability is increasingly becoming an issue. People are often isolated in their communities, with a trip to the southern provinces costing thousands of dollars each way.
Qaqqaq says this relative isolation has led to southerners developing both large and small misconceptions about the territory.
“There’s so much educating to do and awareness to create and unfortunately it’s something that’s still very lacking,” she said. “There are norms here that aren’t normal down south … my hometown, we all have to truck in our food and water and people can’t wrap their minds around that.”
The territories were barely discussed during the 2019 election campaign. Justin Trudeau was the only major party leader to visit any of the three territories during the campaign, and the races there — despite being projected to be close — were largely ignored by mainstream media.
Previously on HuffPost: Northern premiers talk climate change. Story continues below.
Qaqqaq says that there isn’t nearly enough acknowledgement by the federal government of the role Nunavut and the North will play into the continuing the fight against the climate crisis.
“We’re seeing those first impacts here, and we have been seeing them for some time now,” she said. “I believe that Canada is going to eventually return to the north for things like natural resource extraction or mining good for a lot of things for lead and guidance on on climate change and how to tackle these kinds of things.”
More than just representation
While she currently lives in the capital of Iqaluit, Qaqqaq has spent the days leading up to and since Monday’s election at her family’s home in Baker Lake, an inland community of around 2,000 people. On Tuesday night, the community held a parade through the streets to celebrate her victory.
“In Baker we love to do parades — we do parades for weddings, for successful sports tournaments,” she said. “So the fact that it was for me last night was super heartwarming.”
Qaqqaq hasn’t had much time to go out and celebrate though, as she says she’s been inside answering dozens of phone calls from media around the world. She’s received many questions about how it feels to be a young Indigenous woman in government, but she thinks people need to reframe the discussion.
“There is this perception that I’m a triple-threat — I’m young, I’m a woman, and I’m Indigenous. Like, how much better can you get?” she said. “And I think we ask the wrong questions when we ask ‘what does it feel like’ instead of ‘why is this such a surprise’.”
Qaqqaq points to her age as something that shouldn’t be surprising. The average age in Nunavut is 24.7, putting her perfectly in line age-wise in terms of representing her territory.
She said that while many people on social media have focused on her image and what it represents — she is the first MP with traditional Inuit facial tattoos — her victory is a lot bigger than just one person.
“That’s just one of the huge things up here — it’s not just me who’s been successful, it’s my family, it’s my community, it’s the territory,” she said. “This is everyone. This isn’t just about me.”
Qaqqaq ran an entirely volunteer-based campaign, and didn’t even have a campaign manager for the six weeks spent travelling across Canada’s largest territory. The morning after election day, Qaqqaq was making calls to NDP headquarters about what happens next and received an important piece of advice.
“One of my contacts there, she’s like, ‘You know, it’s OK to take some time right now with your family and celebrate’ and I was like, ‘Oh, OK’,” she laughed.
WATCH: NDP’s win in Nunavut was a ‘surprise.’ Story continues below.
After taking in the victory in Baker Lake, Qaqqaq will return to Iqaluit before making her way down to Ottawa. She said she’s excited to learn about how she can have in impact in Parliament.
“I love learning. I love learning new policy and procedure, having a better understanding of how things work specifically so that I have that understanding and I can share with other people,” she said.
Qaqqaq said that ultimately, she hopes her presence in Ottawa will help springboard other youth across Nunavut and the country to learn more about politics and get involved.
“It’s hard to be part of something is this something that you don’t fully understand,” she said. “I think it’s really important for people to have that opportunity to be aware and educated in all different aspects, political or not.”